After six months of negotiations with a Jewish Holocaust survivors group, the Mormon Church has agreed to stop posthumously baptizing Jews.
A senior official of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormon Church is officially known, and Ernest Michel, chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, were scheduled to sign an agreement to that effect this week.
An estimated 380,000 Jewish Holocaust victims and countless other Jews have been posthumously baptized as Mormons and have been included in the church’s database of 200 million baptized people.
The Policy of the Mormon Church directs its 9 million members to research their own ancestry and have their forebears baptized so that the whole family can be reunited, after death, in heaven.
“Mormon baptism is required of every person if they are to be in the presence of God with their family members,” according to Elder Monte Brought, executive director of the church’s Family Department and one of the top officials of the Presidency of Seventy, one of the church’s highest bodies.
Brought said the practice of collecting the names of prominent people, celebrities and Holocaust victims “is counter to the policy of the church, but some have gone and done it anyway.”
Some members of our church felt deep compassion for victims of the Holocaust,” he said in a telephone interview from Salt Lake City, explaining why they had them baptized.
Brought said Mormon officials first learned of the baptisms of Jewish Holocaust victims in 1991 and directed their church members to stop the practice.
But there “were some submissions after that date,” he said.
It turned out that nine Mormons in four countries — Holland, France, Germany and Israel — had obtained book-length lists of jews killed by the Nazis. The lists had been published by the European governments and by Yad Vashem in Israel, according to Brough.
These Mormons then baptized, by proxy, each murdered Jew that was listed.
The baptisms were performed at the church’s temples by having an individual, who is immersed in water, stand in for each dead person who is being baptized.
Gary Mokotoff, president of the Association of Jewish Genealogical Studies, is believed to be the first Jew to discover that the Mormons were baptizing deceased Jews.
Although he first brought the baptisms of murdered Jews to the attention of the Mormons in 1992, he only got police letters promising that “they were looking into it,” he said.
It was only when Michel discovered that his own mother, father, grandmother and best childhood friend, all from Mannheim, Germany, had been posthumously baptized, that the matter was resolved.
“I was hurt that my parents, who were killed as Jews in Auschwitz, were being listed as members of the Mormon faith. I could not accept it. I would have done anything to change it,” Michel said last week in an interview in his office at New York’s UJA-Federation, where he served as executive vice president from 1970 to 1979.
After initial correspondence with the president of the Mormon Church and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who is Mormon, Michel met with Brought and other Mormon officials Jan. 6 in Hatch’s Washington office.
Michel said he was prepared to sue the Mormon church for invasion of privacy, but was surprised when the church leaders turned out to be “as warm and friendly as you could imagine.”
“Brought said, `We made a mistake, we want to make amends and we did not realize that we were offending survivors,’” Michel said. “There were never any disagreements about the substance of what they were to do.”
In a twist of fate, the agreement’s signing comes one week after the 50th anniversary of Michel’s escape from the Nazis.
He fled a death march out of Berga, a subcamp of Buchenwald, into the surrounding woods.
As part of the agreement, the Mormons will delete from their genealogical database information about all known Jewish Holocaust victims who are not the ancestors of living church members.
The database, the International Genealogical Index, is regarded by experts as the most extensive single genealogical resource in the world.
In contains names, birthdates, birthplace and death dates, but not information about religion or ethnicity, so it is impossible to know precisely how many are Jews, beyond those already established as Holocaust victims.
The index also contains the names of several of the Nazi regime’s most notorious leaders who were baptized by Mormons.
According to data from the index provided by Michel, Adolph Eichmann was baptized in September 1991. Joseph Goebbels was baptized in January 1990. Heinrich Himmler was baptized in May 1990 and Hermann Goering in March 1991. Hitler, however, was apparently not baptized.
“We would try and control the baptism of any person like Hitler, who would be considered an evil person and would not be an officially approved candidate for baptism,” said Brough. Perhaps the others “had a descendant who felt that the ordinances of baptism would be helpful,” he said.
The effort to expunge the names of Holocaust victims was initiated in January, even before the final details of the agreement were worked out, and will take about another year to complete, Brough said.
The church is writing the software that will remove the victims’ names from its records, he said, adding that the effort is being undertaken at “a substantial cost.”
Michel estimated the cost to the church at “Several million dollars.”
The agreement Michel and Brough were slated to sign on Wednesday also contains provisions requiring the Mormons to: – Provide a list of all Jewish Holocaust victims whose names are to be removed from the International Genealogical Index to the American Gathering Of Jewish Holocaust Survivors; the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Commission; the N.Y. Holocaust Memorial Commission; the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles; and Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, located in Jerusalem; – Reaffirm the policy and issue a directive to all officials and members of the church to discontinue any future baptisms of deceased Jews; – Confirm this policy in all relevant literature produced by the church; – Remove from the International Genealogical Index in the future the names of all deceased Jews who are so identified if they are known to be improperly included.
Commenting on the agreement, Brought said, “There was never any intent to offend the Jewish people. We consider ourselves deep friends of the Jewish people.”
“All of this was done with feelings of compassion and love, not the desire to injure or damage,” Brough said, adding, “Our intention is to do a better job to direct our members to concentrate on their own ancestors and not someone else’s.”
Mokotoff, the Jewish genealogical expert, welcomed the agreement as “the first time in recorded history that a religion is modifying its practices to accommodate the wishes of non-believers.”
“It’s a credit to the elders of the Latter-day Saints Church that they considered the sensitivities of the Jewish people,” he said.